Royal Commission into Aged Care
GPO Box 1151
Adelaide SA 5001
Monday 25 February 2019
Submission to Aged Care Royal Commission
Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.
In this submission I will focus on one policy issue – the ability of religious aged care services to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees – and its impact on people accessing those services, including LGBT individuals and couples.
As you are likely aware, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 introduced anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians under Commonwealth law for the first time.
This Act, like the majority of pre-existing state and territory laws, provided general exceptions to religious organisations allowing them to discriminate both in service delivery, and employment, including against LGBT people.
However, in an important step forward for equality, the new section 37(2)(a)[i] of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 ‘carved out’ Commonwealth-funded aged care services so that religious organisations that receive public money cannot discriminate against LGBT people accessing those services.
This was a welcome recognition both of the importance of aged care services, and of the potential vulnerability of people who require these services, especially older LGBT people many of whom have been subject to a lifetime of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination.
Unfortunately, the same protection was not extended to LGBT employees and other staff in these services (see section 37(2)(b)[ii]).
This is wrong in principle for two main reasons.
First, whether a person is able to perform their duties as an aged care worker is unrelated to, and independent of, their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
People should be hired, not hired or even fired, on the basis of how well they are able to provide care and support to the people accessing aged care services, not who they are attracted to or how they identify.
Second, it is completely unacceptable that taxpayers’ money should be spent subsidising such discrimination. The purpose of public funding of aged care services is to ensure older Australians have access to quality services which are able to meet their needs – it is not supposed to pay for religious organisations to impose their anti-LGBT views on the aged care workforce.
For both of these reasons, I believe the ‘carve-out’ in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which protects LGBT people accessing aged care services should be extended to cover LGBT employees too.
The special privilege allowing religious aged care services to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong in practice as well, and it is here that this discrimination most clearly relates to the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference.
(a) the quality of aged care services provided to Australians, the extent to which those services meet the needs of the people accessing them, the extent of substandard care being provided, including mistreatment and all forms of abuse, the causes of any systemic failures, and any actions that should be taken in response;
(c) the future challenges and opportunities for delivering accessible, affordable and high quality aged care services in Australia, including:
i. in the context of changing demographics and preferences, in particular people’s desire to remain living at home as they age; and
ii. in remote, rural and regional Australia;
(d) what the Australian Government, aged care industry, Australian families and the wider community can do to strengthen the system of aged care services to ensure that the services provided are of high quality and safe;
The first and most obvious way in which the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services is the reduction of potential talent in their aged care workforce.
This is an entirely logical, and foreseeable, outcome; by excluding some highly-qualified applicants,[iii] for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to perform the relevant role(s), the number of qualified applicants from which to choose is inevitably diminished.
This impact may be exacerbated in remote, rural and regional Australia, where the number of applicants for a position may be much smaller to begin with – any loss of highly-qualified applicants, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, could have a severe impact on service standards.
And this impact will likely exist for as long as the general exception[iv] in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 allows religious aged care services to discriminate in this way.
Because, even if a particular aged care facility doesn’t discriminate at a particular point in time, highly-qualified LGBT employees may nevertheless be discouraged from applying because of the possibility of being legally discriminated against in the future. In remote, rural and regional Australia, where there may be limited employment options, this could even result in qualified employees being lost to the aged care services industry entirely.
There is also a compelling argument that the stress of LGBT employees working in religious aged care services that may lawfully discriminate against them, where they may need to be constantly vigilant in self-censoring their words and actions lest they be ‘found out’, undermines the quality of service provided because it serves as a potential distraction from their day-to-day responsibilities.
People accessing aged care services have the right to expect the highest possible standard of care. That is not provided when an aged care service refuses to employ highly-qualified people simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The second practical reason why allowing religious aged care services to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services is that it can contribute to an organisational culture of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
Once an organisation acts in a manner that suggests discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity is acceptable, it is hard not to see this abuse spilling over into the treatment of LGBT people accessing these services.
LGBT individuals and couples in aged care facilities may directly witness the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic mistreatment of staff, and feel less safe in their surroundings as a result. Or they could be subject to direct or indirect anti-LGBT discrimination themselves.
There is already a significant power imbalance between people accessing these services and the service-providers themselves. As a result, even if the LGBT person accessing the service technically has a right not to be discriminated against under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, they may feel uncomfortable in making a formal complaint because of a legitimate fear that the organisation will not be responsive to it.
LGBT people accessing these services are also denied natural allies because any LGBT employees at the facility may feel unable to advocate on their behalf because they are also afraid of retribution from the organisation itself (in this case, entirely legal).
Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination against LGBT employees inevitably has a detrimental impact on LGBT individuals and couples accessing aged care services.
The third and final practical reason why allowing religious aged care services to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services, especially for LGBT people, is that it denies them an opportunity for human connection.
Residential aged care facilities, in particular, are the ‘homes’ of the people living in them, usually for the final years or decades of their lives. The provision of services is about much more than simply providing shelter, food and health care.
For LGBT individuals and couples, having one or more LGBT employees offers the opportunity to bond with them over potential interests, and to share stories with each other (including, I might add, the ability for younger LGBT employees to learn from the older LGBT residents).
However, this opportunity is lost if an LGBT employee is unable to discuss this aspect of their lives, for fear of being discriminated against. For the resident, the possibility of conversation is replaced by silence.
Discrimination against LGBT employees in aged care services can exacerbate the social isolation experienced by LGBT individuals and couples accessing those services.
In conclusion, there are principled reasons why religious aged care services should not be able to discriminate against LGBT employees. These employees should be judged on their ability to perform the role, not on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidise anti-LGBT discrimination.
There are also practical reasons why such discrimination should be prohibited, including that it impacts on the quality of aged care services provided, contributes to a culture of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and denies LGBT residents an opportunity for human connection.
Therefore, to improve the quality of aged care services, including although not only for LGBT residents, the special privilege allowing such discrimination should be repealed.
Recommendation: The Royal Commission into Aged Care should call for amendment to section 37(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to remove the ability of religious aged care services to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration as part of the Royal Commission. If you would like further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided below.
[i] 37(2) provides that “Paragraph (1)(d) does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if:
(a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and
(b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that care.”
[ii] See footnote (i), above.
[iii] I am not suggesting that all LGBT applicants are highly-qualified, some will obviously not be (in the same way some cisgender heterosexual applicants will not), but excluding highly-qualified applicants of any background reduces both the number and the depth of qualified applicants to choose from.
[iv] Section 37(1)(d) provides that “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”